Denver Law History
A Legacy of Innovation
Colorado territorial governor John Evans founded the University of Denver in 1864, making it the oldest independent institution of higher education in the Rocky Mountain region. The University of Denver College of Law opened its doors in 1892, pioneering legal education on America’s frontier and graduating many of the attorneys and judges who built the legal structure of America’s Mountain West. Independence, ingenuity, and excellence remain guiding principles at DU Law and for the whole of the University of Denver, which also includes top graduate schools in business, international studies, social work and other fields.
The law school initially adopted an apprenticeship model of legal education, recruiting the most prestigious attorneys in Denver to teach students the nuts and bolts of the practice of law. Students gained invaluable insight from their practitioner professors; aside from the rigors of classroom study, students also frequently observed courtroom proceedings. This approach to teaching students by employing in-the-field methods remains at the heart of DU Law.
A pioneer amidst pioneers, the College of Law opened the doors to its Legal Aid Dispensary in 1904, thus creating the first clinical programs in the nation and the precursor to DU Law’s Student Law Office (SLO). A frontrunner in serving Denver’s indigent populations, the Dispensary saw several incarnations before it evolved into the law school’s present day clinical programs. The SLO trains law students in the practice of law under the supervision of experienced faculty, while at the same time representing the under-served in criminal defense, civil practice, and civil rights matters. The Environmental Law Clinic gives students additional opportunities for public interest practice.
The Westminster Law School is an important part of the history of legal education in Denver. For 45 years, from its founding in 1912 to its merger with the University of Denver College of Law in 1957, Westminster provided the only evening program of law study from Kansas City to the Pacific Coast. In Westminster’s prime, it boasted a sizable student body and its alumni were successful in passing the bar and practicing law. Evolving accreditation standards eventually required too large a budget for the strictly part-time institution, and the school merged with the University of Denver. Terms of the merger included naming the law library the Westminster Law Library and the development of an evening program at the College of Law.
DU Law “Firsts”
- In June, 1893, the College of Law produced the first graduates of a law school in the history of Colorado.
- First clinical programs in the nation, founded in 1904
- DU Law graduated the first woman lawyer—Mary Lathrop, LLB’1896—to be admitted to practice before the Colorado United States District court and the United States Court of Appeals.
- Opened the first Legal Aid Dispensary (the precursor to today’s clinical programs) in 1904
- Created the first comprehensive Lawyering in Spanish program, pioneering an immersion method of language and law learning and allowing students to participate in multicultural and cross-linguistic legal experiences in and outside of the classroom.
- Introduced the first Natural Resources Law courses in the country, beginning with Irrigation and Water Rights in 1893.
- The nation’s first LEED-certified “green” law building
Adopting the Sturm name
In September 2004, upon receipt of a generous $20 million gift from DU Law graduate Donald L. Sturm, LLB’58, and his wife, Susan M. Sturm, the University of Denver’s College of Law became the Sturm College of Law. The gift was the largest single donation in the 112-year history of the law school and one of the University of Denver’s largest gifts to date.